04/15/12 — Keller is Boss Hog as pigs take over the park

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Keller is Boss Hog as pigs take over the park

By Kelly Corbett
Published in News on April 15, 2012 1:50 AM

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Johnny Kearney, with his team Haulin Hog Catering, stepped up to cook a second pig when another team had to drop out due to death of one of its members.

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Kirk Keller smiles while a pig nibbles on his ear after Keller kissed it upon being crowned this year's "Boss Hog" during the Pig in the Park festival at Old Waynesborough Park. Pig in the Park was attended by thousands of people who enjoyed the 24 pigs and 70 vendors. The event benefited the Boys and Girls Club of Wayne County.

A traditionally festive event began on something of a somber note Friday when cooks learned that two of the teams would be taking on the added challenge of cooking an extra hog at the third annual Pig in the Park festival after the father of two competing sons, Sammy and John Hammond, died of a heart attack Friday morning while loading their truck for the competition.

But after respects were paid, all of the cooks got down to business and this year's Boss Hog, Kirk Keller, got busy kissing his pig in what organizers deemed another successful event Saturday at the Waynesborough Park.

Friday night, though, it was Haulin' Hogs and the Young Professionals who stepped up to the plate to cook the two additional pigs. For Johnny Kearney, of Haulin' Hogs, it was an extra challenge as he and his son, John, had just split their team up to compete against each other after winning the competition last year.

"I was the first judged," Johnny Kearney said. "I was the last one judged also."

Chopping his first pig after the four judge's came by, preparing for the second round of judging Saturday morning, he said he wasn't sure how well he had done.

"It was too dark, but you never know," Kearney said about the color of the pork.

The cooks began arriving at the park about 2 p.m. Friday, setting up and settling in as they waited for the 24 pigs to arrive at 10 p.m. Then, for the rest of the night, the smells of slow-roasting pig wafted across U.S. 117 as the chefs -- and their pig cookers -- worked their magic.

Kearney did not take home a prize this year, but Saturday's Pig in the Park was only one of many barbecue competitions he has been part of during his 30 years of cooking. And what he likes most, he said, is the camaraderie among the cookers, even as the judges made their way through the tents.

"That's what we do, we team up," said Jerry Jefferys, of Raleigh, who later received third place in the North Carolina Pork Council division.

Many of the NCPC division members know each other, and they spend time catching up while their pigs cook, he said. Plus, they can lend a helping hand if something goes wrong.

"It never fails -- someone always forgets something," he said. "I had a whole box of stuff I forgot. A lot of things go wrong."

Jefferys studied under Lloyd Parker, another competitor at the festival, before venturing out on his own team, Hog Heaven Cooking. Pig in the Park, which he was competing in for the second time, was only his fifth cook-off.

And while many say the secret is in the sauce, Jefferys said it is all about pleasing the people and pleasing the judges.

"It's not about barbecue," he said. "It's about how your pig looks. And it's also about bragging rights."

He doesn't even use the sauce he serves to his family in the competition, because he said it's not what most people want. Jefferys keeps his personal sauce to the side for snacking, but came up with an entirely new sauce to compete with.

"Get one you like or get one the judges are going to like," he said.

After the sounds of chopping began to subside, cookers and the thousands who had arrived at the park began to gather around the stage to see who would be kissing the baby pig.

And this year it was Kirk Keller, business operations management and engineering professor at Wayne Community College, who received the high honor of Boss Hog, taking the title from previous reigning Boss Hog Chuck Allen.

Keller put on his cape and crown before laying a big one on the pig, which he also let nibble on his ear. He said the key to his victory was making sure everyone he knew -- and many he didn't -- voted for him.

"To me, that's the key to it, getting more people involved," Keller said. "We had a lot of fun with it. We got the college and community involved with it."

Keller, who had his celebrity pig poster set up Friday night at the Flying Shamrock downtown, was the campaign manager last year in the competition for college president Kay Albertson, so he had a game plan when asked to participate this year. And it paid off for him, with his efforts leading to $1,600 in donations, out of a total of $2,500 raised, for the Boys and Girls Club.

Back at the barbecue, though, nine cookers claimed titles in three divisions -- showmanship, backyard and North Carolina Pork Council -- for their barbecue masterpieces.

Brandon Wells and Gary Green took home first place in the NCPC division, the highly regarded title that sends winners to the state championships with fees paid, in addition to a $200 cash prize.

"He's the chief cook," Green said. "He's the man."

The two, who work together for the city of Kinston, did not know what made their barbecue stick out among the other competitors, but were happy to receive the honor.

"I'll tell you one thing, we're going to do it just like this from now on," Wells said.

Martin Johnson, with the Goldsboro Parks and Recreation team, took home two prizes for his first year of competing -- first place in showmanship and first place in the backyard division.

The warm weather helped bring the thousands out to the festival to enjoy the sun and activities, and, of course, to eat barbecue.

Last year, more than 5,000 people attended the event.

"It'll probably be more than that, because the weather is gorgeous," Mary Ann Dudley, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club said.